One of the first blogs I wrote that bears repeating…
In 1859, the Scottish author, Samuel Smiles wrote in Self Help, “We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Think back to your childhood and teen years. How often did you ignore your parents’ admonishments and do something anyway. Learning the consequences of that mistake had so much more impact than your parents’ warning, and you learned by first-hand experience that perhaps you didn’t want to repeat that mistake in the future. And, you survived!
By the same token, I had a great aunt, a famous heart doctor, who always said that it was more important to publish your failures than your successes. It kept others from wasting a lot of energy, time, and money going down that same particular path. Instead, other researchers could try a different approach, or perhaps a variation on the scenario that didn’t work, and in doing so, might make some “mistakes” that resulted in some great discoveries.
And so it is with photography. If we are afraid of making mistakes, we can’t grow as photographers. Cameras these days save us from ourselves if we allow them to. I rarely set my camera to A (automatic).
I was lucky to grow up shooting film that came with a little sheet of minutely folded paper that had that exposure guide chart. Some of you may remember it. Light sand and snow, bright sunlight, cloudy, shade, open shade. It gave the f/stops at a shutter speed of 1/125 for each situation. I may have forgotten the exact labels, but that is close enough.
Even before those days, when I was eight, I got my first camera, a Brownie Hawkeye Flash Model that took 620 film, the precursor to 120 film that came on a slightly thicker spool. 120 wasn’t introduced until 1965. The adjustments on my Brownie were minimal, but when I read the manual, I saw that I could do a longer exposure. I experimented with that, and came out with some interesting results. I wish I had the negatives from those days, but in the myriad of moves I have gone through, they disappeared. Probably thrown out by my mother who was obsessive-compulsive about being tidy.
I also saw in the manual a section on mistakes, one of which was an example of double exposures caused by not advancing the film between shots.
“Hmmm,” I thought, “That could be really neat.”
And so, armed with the newfound knowledge of how to not do double exposures, I did them on purpose. The “mistake” became discovery with some pleasing results.
My next camera I bought two or three years later with the help of my dad. I had to earn half the money, $50, which was a lot for an eleven-year-old, and he would come up with the rest. I think he saw it as an easy way for him not to have to mow the lawn! It was the German Kodak, marvelously compact Retina IIc with a Schneider Xenon-C 50mm f/2.0 lens that was really superb in such a modest camera. That camera saw a lot of miles, many locations, and produced some really wonderful photographs and learning experiences. I used that camera for probably 25 years before I switched to my first SLR.
This is where the guide chart for exposures came in for me. I had a little 3”x5” notebook, something I recommend to our workshop participants to this day, in which I recorded date, frame number, conditions (light sand or snow, cloudy, etc.), speed, and f/stop. These days, with digital cameras, everything but the conditions is found in the camera metadata, but the exercise is still valuable for finding out what works best for you and your vision of how you want to make (note I don’t say “take”) a photograph.
Sometimes, you just don’t have time to fire off a lot of shots to capture a moment in time, so it’s best to experiment in those situations. Instead, experiment when the results don’t matter, and discover if some of those “mistakes” are actually techniques you want to use in the future.
So, experiment with different ways of approaching your photography. Who knows what you might discover!
For more information on our workshops, go to Barefoot Contessa Photo Adventures.
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